Category Archives: Criticism

Writing is not a Performance Art

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Sometimes, we write what we most need to hear.  And this is one of those moments.  So pull up a chair and a cup of coffee, because I have something I want to tell you that I need to hear:

A friend was publishing a new story in a new fandom. The fact that she was not getting the readership and the number of comments she wanted was causing her great distress. Her predicament got me thinking.

So often as artists, we base our self-esteem, our value of our own work, on what other people think. The family who surround me, for example, do not view me as a ‘proper’ writer because my work does not come neatly packaged between two cardboard rectangles with the name of a reputable publisher stamped on the back. I do not make money from my work. Therefore I do not ‘work’, and I am not a ‘proper’ writer. I am not a stranger to the humiliation of being told at a family dinner to move over because: ‘There’s a writer at the table’, when another relative, a talented journalist (whose work I greatly admire and whose success I happily delight in, I should point out) arrives to sit down.

At our recent writing retreat, my fellow writers and I had a long and animated discussion about the ever-present problem of how other people react when we tell them what we do. One friend told the horrible anecdote of an acquaintance’s response to the news that she was a writer – ‘Never mind, I’m sure you can get a job at Tesco!’

(I know, right?)

I suspect that writers are second only to actors in the low opinion the public has of our earning power. Either you’re Benedict Cumberbatch or you’re unemployed. This completely ignores the thousands of jobbing actors who make a reasonable, if somewhat precarious, living doing low profile but necessary jobs in voice-overs, radio, small TV parts and rep. Indeed, Benedict Cumberbatch has spent a substantial proportion of his career doing exactly that. (If you watch and listen carefully, you’ll see and hear him pop up all over the place!)

The point I am trying to make is that creative people don’t do it for the money. And if you think that, you have missed the whole point.

Modern society, where success in any endeavour is measured in filthy lucre and TV appearances, clearly has failed to read the memo.

Another friend, who has been a visual artist as well as a writer all her working life, which I suspect helps, responds to the dreaded question about earnings thus: “I don’t do it for the money. I do it because it keeps me sane.”

And that is the point.

Writing is not a performance art.

At least, fiction is not. (Journalism obviously is, and I’m still on the fence about poetry!)

Writing is not about the number of comments or reviews you get.  Its not about the number of ‘shares’ on Tumblr.  Its not about the number of hits you get in a day.  Its not about being published by Harper and Collins, or getting an agent from a top agency, or being on an arts programme on BBC4, or giving author readings, or getting your picture in the paper,  or winning the Booker Prize, or making the bestseller lists on Amazon or the Sunday Times, or getting a three book deal, or selling your script to Warners and getting a theme park made out of your book, or making £100k a year.

Writing is not about how many people like you.  Its not about applause.

Writing is about making stories.

We do it because we have to. Because we have a compulsion to tell our stories.

I am delighted to tell you that my fanfiction friend soldiered on against the tide with writing and publishing her new fanwork. Over time she accumulated a substantial following, but more importantly has rejoiced in an explosion of creativity, producing more works and excelling in other art forms as a result.  And I’m thrilled for her.  She is going through a renaissance of creativity because she refused to give up.

“How people receive your gifts is none of your business. You were given a unique set of gifts, life experiences, and passions. Your only job is to share them.”

Rebecca Campbell, ‘Light is the New Black’

When it comes down to it, it does not matter whether family notice that I get over 100 readers a day, a tally that most conventionally published writers could only dream of. (I’m the only person who is hung up about that, after all!)  It does not matter whether they read my work. (Actually, I’m quite glad they don’t!) It does not matter whether they like it. It does not matter whether they think I am an idiot not to charge for it. It does not matter how much I earn or don’t earn, or what other people think of that sum. It really doesn’t matter what people I meet at dinner parties think when I tell them what I do.

And really, it doesn’t matter what my audience thinks either.

The point is to make the art.

And to keep making the art.

To keep on speaking my truth.

Because the people who need to hear that truth will find me. And the rest don’t matter.

Or, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it so beautifully:

“If people don’t like what you’re creating, just smile at them sweetly and tell them to GO MAKE THEIR OWN FUCKING ART!”

Happy creating,

EF

The Muse with the Limp

Walking with my Muse

Walking with my Muse

My Muse is limping.

I’ve only just noticed. I think she has probably been hobbled her whole life. Or at least since my teens. Perhaps even since my childhood.

Since the moment when what other people thought became more important than what I thought.

I didn’t know until I looked at her. I didn’t know until I began to think seriously about her, about where we are going together, about what we want. I think most of all she wants to be set free of expectations.

Other people’s expectations.

Or rather, the way I constrain her by caring what other people think.

All the ‘how tos’ and ‘SHOULDs’ and ‘OUGHTs’. All the maxims and formulas. The schemata and diagrams and plot arcs and exhortations about what ‘The Market’ is looking for next.

Most of all, the Rules. You know the ones. About what is valuable. What is Serious. What is High Art. What is Literary.

I’m ashamed of the art I make. I’m ashamed of the fact that I write fanfiction. I’m ashamed that I write about sex. And about romance. Because romance is tacky and pink and very definitely NOT Literature.

(Never mind ‘Pride and Prejudice’ being a romance. Never mind ‘Jane Eyre’ being a romance. Never mind pretty much every great novel there has ever been having a love story at the centre of it, because this is what we do as human beings – we fall in love. Barbara Cartland made it cheap. Barbara Cartland has a lot to answer for. Or perhaps it wasn’t her fault. Just the fault of the patriarchal publishing industry which packages ‘women’s fiction in pink, tacky covers and gives it all the seriousness of maribou feathers, in order to keep us girls in our place. But I digress….)

One day I was walking along, enjoying the chilly afternoon sun, head in the clouds, and a revolutionary thought came to me:

I can do what I want.

I don’t have to listen to anybody else.

I don’t have to care what anybody else thinks.

I can do what I want.

I cannot tell you how extraordinary that thought was, coming to me not long after I had offered a story to a friend for feedback, only to have it be ripped apart (in a loving way, of course) and then to be told how to rewrite it – as she would have done. I should have known better, of course. The story wasn’t cooked yet. It was still in that wobbly, puddingy state when it hasn’t yet set. Not ready to be seen by anyone else, in other words.   And because I respect her opinion, because she is a SERIOUS writer, a Literary writer, I listened.

And my Muse has needed a wheelchair ever since.

(I note the use of the word SHOULD in that sentence earlier by the way. You see, I’m getting quite good at spotting them these days!)

But what would happen if I decided to disregard what THEY think. All those people out there whose opinion I value above my own?

What if I listened to my gut?

Medical scientists have discovered recently that there are more neurons, using more serotonin, in the human gut, than in the brain. That’s where the majority of your serotonin goes, in fact. That’s why we have what we call ‘gut feelings’.

Maybe I should listen to my gut. And give my poor, battered Muse a bit of physiotherapy. Perhaps I can set her free from all the OUGHTS and find out what she wants to do. Maybe we could have a bit of fun together, the first unrestrained fun we’ve had since I was writing Blakes 7 fanfics when I was about 8!

I’m not expecting to write the Great Novel that way. But perhaps I could just write MY novel.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to throw out all of my ‘How to Write’ books, so I can discover how I write.

Happy creating,

EF

Learning the Lessons

Footprints Ardnave 1I have to admit to being a bit nervous about posting again.  Which is silly, really.  But last week’s battering has really knocked my confidence, and the events of the intervening days have been a rough ride.

But just when you think you can’t cope anymore, the Universe hands you a rose.  This time in the shape of Pola’s loving and kind comment on my last post:

“The reason I’m writing is to let you know that I really appreciate your talent in writing. I appreciate your devotion to your craft and your desire to help others in developing their own style and creativity. So whatever you decide, I just wanted you to know that I think you’re an important voice in the world of writing and that I hope you never give up in your endeavor to have your voice heard. This world would be less without it.”

Thank you so much, dear, dear Pola.  I cannot tell you how much this meant to me.

With your words ringing in my ears, I got back on the horse last night, and wrote a new story, 2207 words of trying something new with ‘Lewis’.  It was somehow important to start again with ‘Lewis’ given that it was a ‘Lewis’ story that caused all the trouble in the first place.  I don’t know where the story came from, it just popped into my head.  I don’t know if I’m ready to publish anything yet either, but it feels so good to be back in the saddle.

I was made to write.  I don’t know how not to.

Somehow, I’m going to have to learn to deal with criticism better, from the sort that is justified to the sort that is completely out of order.  Its very hard to do that when you are already in a tough place.

I realised that I posted the story because I wanted a confidence boost.  I wanted some good reviews to cheer me up.  And when I didn’t get them, got the reverse in fact, it knocked me over completely.

Important Lesson #1:  Do not post your fanfics just to get applause.

I posted ‘Not So Innocent’ on a whim.  I don’t have a beta, so it hadn’t had a second reader look at it.  There was no one to tell me that it had dodgey elements in it.  I had doubts about it, I have to admit, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what they were.  If I’d had backup, maybe I would have seen its faults.

Important Lesson #2: Get a beta reader.

Preferably someone who knows the fandoms I write in, has excellent capacity for spotting my hidden prejudices, and my inability to cope with apostrophes.  I read last night’s creation to Husband (a stickler for apostrophes), which was a very useful exercise (reading your work aloud is always enlightening), but he doesn’t have the time to be a proper beta, and he’s got enough stress on his plate as it is.

I’ve always fought shy of having a beta because I don’t like the idea of the delay it involves.  I’m probably too protective of my work anyway, so having an editor would be good practise in stepping back, and would probably help me handle criticism better.  Plus I’ve had bad experiences with supposedly ‘helpful’ readers in the past.  And I know what a lousy beta I am in terms of getting around to reading other people’s work I’ve offered to read.

If anyone is interested in being a beta for me, and can offer a fast turn-around time, dedication to grammar and a fine eye for possible offending material, please let me know.

Its hard not to feel over-sensitive at this point.  I confess I am still very wobbly.  Things in RL are on shaky ground.  I’m trying to support Husband and his family members as best I can, while dealing with my own illness, and the onset of the most difficult time of the year for me in terms of mental health.  Taking it slow and looking after myself, so that I can look after him, is the best I can do.

Important Lesson #3:  Look after yourself.

And of course:

Important Lesson #4:  DON’T GIVE UP.

So thank you for your continued support.  One way or another, we’ll all get there.

Happy Creating,

EF

Exhausted and Overwrought – and Deleting ‘Not So Innocent’

Following mature and thoughtful discussion in the comments section of my last post, I’ve decided to take ‘Not So Innocent’ off AO3.  The whole thing has upset me too much, especially since we are now facing a new personal crisis in RL.  Its just not worth it.

Right now, I don’t want to publish a fanfic ever again.  I just can’t face it.  I’ll get over that, I suppose.  I always do.  I certainly don’t want to spend today writing, as I had planned.

I want to say something erudite about the way women are treated by society, but I just don’t think I can.  I’ll just say this:

Jimmy Saville’s victims number in the hundreds.  More come out every day.

Accusations are now filtering out about not just sexual and physical abuse, but children being killed as part of sex parties by a ring centred in Westminster in the 70s and 80s.

Bill Cosby’s career is in freefall after accusations of rape.

Rotherham.

Birmingham.

Rochdale

Oxford

Telford

Syria and Iraq

Boko Haram

Women being executed for bringing ‘shame on their families’ by being the victim of rape.

Just about every photoshopped photograph in every glossy magazine published anywhere in the world.

Every diet company that preys on women’s poor self image.

Gala Darling’s recent revelations

Every girl who’s afraid to walk down her own street at night, but thinks the only way to be acceptible to her peers is to go out scantily dressed on a Friday night and get so drunk she can’t even stand, let alone take care of herself and keep herself safe.

Every boy who thinks that when a girl says no, she means ‘yes’ because she’s ‘playing hard to get’.

Every person who judges me because I don’t have children, or because I let my hair grow grey, because I’m not behaving like a ‘proper’ woman.

My husband’s 86 year old aunt, who weighs no more than 6 stone, telling me her thighs are fat.

And the fact that the acceptance of abuse is so ingrained in both my mind and yours that often we don’t even notice it.  Because I certainly didn’t.

EF

 

An Essay on Prammage*, or How Not to Take Your Own Advice About Adverse Criticism

*Prammage: noun, colloquial.  The act of throwing one’s toys out of the pram;  going off in a flounce or a sulk; a passive-aggressive act of self-harm or self-sabotage in response to not getting one’s own way; see also ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’.

I was going to write you a lovely blog post about playing with language today, but events have taken an interesting turn, and I wanted to share them with you.

On Monday 17th November I posted a Lewis fanfic called ‘Not So Innocent’ that I’d had hanging around on my hard disk for a while.  It was written as a quickfic, and I found it again, and thought it was funny, so I decided to post it as a quickie and didn’t think much about it.  Being a Lewis fic, it didn’t get masses of attention, because the fandom is relatively small, but the person I posted it for as a gift liked it, and that seemed all that mattered.

This morning, Wednesday 19th November, I woke up to vicious criticism on both FF.net and AO3 for the story.  The reviewer basically accused me of condoning and inciting sexual harrassment and rape.

Hmm.

This didn’t go down too well with me, since I have been victim of both sexual harrassment and abuse.

I am also not in a good place at the moment, and my response to this unexpected attack was to delete the story on both AO3 and FF.net.  I have never written a dub-con or non-con story and I wouldn’t.  It disgusts me.  I have written quite aggressively dark stories that include child abuse and public humiliation sex, but which explore the psychological wounds that underly and result from them.  For anyone to accuse me of condoning sexually abusive behaviour was just too much.

I can’t be arsed.  I’ve got too much other shit going on in my life to bother with making myself a target for such oversensitive extreme-feminist bull.

As far as I was concerned, the reader had simply not identified the subtext which runs through the story, which is that all participants know exactly what is going on, and are party to it, an irony from which the humour is supposed to arise.

Obviously I didn’t make that subtext clear enough, I realised, as I stomped off to the bathroom to shower.  (I do most of my thinking and story planning in the shower.)  And then I really got to thinking:

Was my own experience of sexual harrassment at work being a ‘normal’ part of a woman’s career colouring my work?

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I have been on the receiving end of some serious acts of sexual harrassment in my younger days (before I lost my looks, haha!).  It was regarded with a shrug as something that went on.  Indeed, at some level, ‘Not So Innocent’ must draw on the experiences I had as a young academic at a number of conferences.

At one, I allowed myself to be seduced by an older man who was also the leader of a rival project.  He was charming and intelligent, and I was lonely and desperate for comfort.  It later transpired that he was only interested in me because he thought he could extract from me details of what our project was doing.

And this is where the question of consent comes in.  We had fully consensual sex that night, but it turned out that we were consenting to two different things.  I thought I was consenting to beginning an intimate relationship with long term prospects.  He thought I was consenting to being exploited for information.  The question of consent between two people having sex turns out to be a lot more complicated than just ‘do you want to, or not’.

My own experience of conference ‘pursuits’ is not something I have examined much before, except to realise that its pretty exploitative, but I can see that in writing ‘No So Innocent’, I’ve displayed some attitudes that I had internalised without thinking.  Instead of thinking: ‘this is what happens’, maybe I should have realised: ‘this isn’t something that should happen.’

I began to reflect on ‘Not So Innocent’ in a different way, by considering what both James and Lewis are consenting to, and what Innocent is implying.  Would she really go through with her threat?  I think not. I think she’d sit James down on the end of her bed and give him a good talking-to about how much he loves Lewis, and how much Lewis clearly loves him.  I think I knew that when I was writing it.  I think James knows it too.

And even if they did have sex because he chickened out with Lewis, I think it would be lovely, passionate, and above all, uncoerced.

There was intended to be a sexual frisson between James and Jean.  I wanted him to be torn to a certain extent, attracted by the prospect of Innocent’s considerable charms.  I happen to think she’s a very sexy woman, and I think James sees that, just as she finds him attractive.  I realised I underwrote the irony because while I was writing, I wasn’t sure how the thing was going to end – and I secretly wanted James and Innocent to end up in bed together.  That is the danger of publishing an unpolished quickfic.

As for the scene where James gets into bed with Robbie, I honestly don’t think there is a consent issue there.  Robbie is clearly consenting, and if he wasn’t, he’s quite capable, both in terms of physical strength, and authority, of ejecting James.  In my opinion, it is clear that they are also both consenting to the same thing, and they both know it:  the start of a loving relationship, and the end of their unrequited yearning for each other.

And yes, it would be different if it were a man getting into a woman’s bed uninvited, or a man threatening a woman with seduction, but that isn’t what is happening.  These are two people who are in love, finally being pushed through their inhibitions by a fond friend.  The fact that they happen to be co-workers, with the ensuing power-politics, becomes irrelevant in the face of love.

I wish I hadn’t deleted the story, because I have deleted the comments of the readers as a result.  I wish I had left it so that people can make up their own minds.  Because, if nothing else, this story might make people rethink attitudes at work that they have previously taken for granted as normal, as I have.

I also think its a work I have clearly under-written in terms of subtext, and all the participants’ complicity, but I’m not going to rewrite it, or change it in any way.  I want it to stand as a testament to the fact that I will no longer throw my toys out of the pram because someone doesn’t like my work.

I have never censored myself because of a review, and I won’t start now.

So I’ve decided to republish ‘Not So Innocent’ on AO3, so that you can make up your own mind.  I’d love to have a discussion with you on the subjects raised, either in the comments here, or on AO3.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you,

love EF

Unexpected Attack of the Killer Critics

“Well, it smacks of arrogance to me,” she said, when I explained to her what a blog was.  “To assume you have something to say that anyone would want to read.”

After that, I admit I lost track a bit of what she was saying, distracted by the fact that the word ‘ARROGANT’ seemed to be written above our heads in flashing red neon capitals.

And then was somehow branded on my forehead.

This, from a long-time friend, someone I have known for many years through both ups and downs, hers and mine.  I thought she knew how much my writing meant to me,  I thought she understood,

Of course, it all comes from fear.

Fear that the world is changing, and she doesn’t understand it.

It is fear that makes a person, however intelligent, assume that because they don’t understand something, it has no value.  The irony of this position is that it puts the fearful person in the centre of their universe, which is as good a definition of arrogance and egotism as I have seen.

Driving home, I realised my heart was hurting.  I looked up at the sun piercing shafts of silvery light through the evening rainclouds (“God speaking”, as my mother says whenever she sees such a sky) but I couldn’t see the beauty of it.  I was hurting too much.  But it won’t stop me, her criticism.  I will make lemonade.

Why?

Because I can’t not write.

Regardless of whether anyone thinks that what I have to say has merit (and I know some of you do because you kindly subscribe, favourite, like and comment, for which I am eternally grateful), I will go on writing because I am compelled to write.

Because its my job.

It’s my life’s work.

Its what I do.

I don’t get paid for it – not yet anyway, though I have hopes.  Some friends still don’t get that, either.  Their measure of success comes in pound notes.  They can’t understand my ‘failure to monetize’.  They don’t understand that to me, success means averaging 400 readers a day of my fanfiction, over 400 subscribers to this blog, or on some days, just managing to write two or three coherent sentences.

My critical friend doesn’t understand the compulsion to be creative, to have a voice.  She doesn’t get that if I don’t write every day, I turn into the Evil Twisted Passive-Aggressive Psycho-Bitch from Hell.  And she doesn’t understand that:

EVERYBODY HAS THE RIGHT TO SPEAK THEIR OWN TRUTH.

So if you take nothing else away from my work, and from my complaining about my thoughtless friend, or why money-oriented people don’t understand creativity as an end in itself, please take this:

SPEAK YOUR OWN TRUTH.

IT IS YOUR RIGHT.

This is my message to you, and whether it has merit or not, it is my life’s work to say it, over and over again.

Happy Creating,

EF

Serendipity – the Universe is listening!

After yesterday’s rant about frustration, I want to share with you something that arrived in my world this morning.  Something beautiful.  Something I really needed to hear.

Jamie Ridler is talking about being a gracious host to your own creative urges.

Whatever they may be.

And not judging them.

I can’t tell you how much I needed this permission to cease judging today.  Thank you Jamie.

EF

 

Journal Friday: The Emotional Swingometer

go away bagThe Creative Life is a carnival ride.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Right now I am on the rollercoaster.

Thank goodness for my diary.  If it were not for that little Moleskine notebook, I would be a complete basketcase.  Actually, I’m probably still a complete basketcase, but I feel better about it, because I write it all down.

The days when I am completely sure I have squeezed every last drop of juice out of Johnlock.

They days when I can’t stop writing Johnlock.

The days when I have so many ideas for stories that I don’t know what to do with them all.

The days when my imagination is a barren wasteland.

The days when one comment has convinced me that my work is utter crap and I owe it to the world to never write again.

The days when a stroppy comment has filled me with so much anger and resentment and martyrdom that I am going to passive-aggressively hold the entire fandom to ransom by never publishing another Johnlock story again because frankly those bitches are all so ungrateful.  (as if they’d even notice.)

The days when that novel I am writing is the greatest thing ever written.

The days when that novel is so bad I am ashamed to even walk into the same room as my laptop.

The days when reviews flood in, and I am Queen of the World and Goddess of All Writing and my ego is the size of Jupiter.

The days when the reviews flood in, and they just aren’t praising me enough, they’ll never say enough good things about me because I am so bloody wonderful, which of course means that secretly I know without doubt that I am an absolute fraud and completely useless.

The days when the reviews flood in, and I am cowering under my desk in shame that anybody could think that story I wrote is readable.

The days when I am satisfied because I have written something that I think is good.  Good in the way that tapping on solid mahogany with your knuckles is good.  Something that is out of my own real, original voice.  Something that I am satisfied with.

The days when the fandom bores me to tears, or irritates the hell out of me, and so does my writing.

The days when I know my writing is completely stagnant, and I need to progress onto the next stage but I don’t know where to start.

And the days when I just sit down and write.

Before, or after I have written some fiction, I take a little time to reflect.  Sometimes I write in my journal to get my juices flowing, the way Morning Pages are supposed to.  Sometimes I write afterwards, to reflect on where I am going, on my emotional equilibrium (or lack of it).

Usually, when I have published a story, I watch the comments coming in, and try to write through my responses, the paranoid ones and the egotistical ones, the happy, the grateful and the furious.

My journal helps me keep my writing experience in perspective.  There isn’t a lot of perspective about our own creativity, lets face it.  We are all reared to be perfectionists, to rule ourselves out in the basis of not being Picasso, or to believe ourselves to be Dickens without needing to do the hard work.  It is so hard to be objective.

My journal helps me remember that the only life I am saving when I write is my own.  In the great scheme of things, this is not battlefield surgery.  Or, if it is, it is on my emotions alone.  That is why objectivity is important.

I need to remember that my writing is not about what other people think.  It’s about me.  At its very core, it is about healing my own wounds. 

Even if I never publish another word, I will still keep writing, partly because it’s a compulsion, and partly because it mends my soul.

That is why keeping a journal is crucial for every creative person, whether you are amateur or professional.  It reminds you of the WHY.

How do you use your journal in your creative process?

Happy journaling,

EF

Smorgesbord

sleep sketchI usually try to post on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but this week’s Wednesday post got missed because I was ill.  I’m still ill, but my brain is slightly clearer today and I am giving myself to thinking time.

Thinking about future posts for this blog.  Thinking about writing and notebooking.  Thinking about art.  Thinking about clearing space in my life for more creativity.  Its a luxury I have to lie in bed and consider which direction I am going in creatively, and I recognise that.  Few people get that option.  I may be feeling terrible, but I’m enormously grateful I can use this time to be present with my work.

I thought I’d share a few things I have been mulling over with you.

Here are the thoughts of Elmore Leonard on writing, an enormous inspiration.

Here is Stephen King, saying illuminating things about both ‘The Shining’ and about the attitude of critics, something I really needed to hear this week.

Talking about critics, Jack Vettriano has been savaged by the art establishment over the years, but now he’s having a retrospective at the Kelvingrove.  Oh, the irony!  (And lets just remind ourselves that this man is self-taught, which may be why critics hate him so much.)

If you are interested in art, check out this site.  I love its brightness and enthusiasm.

I want to do this course next.

And to end, a little light reading.  I’m pursuing a new project of short stories and vignettes which explore life inside an established relationship through fanfiction.  The series is called ‘Geography of a Shared Life’.  You can read my latest piece here at A03, and here at FF.net.

Happy creating,

EF

The Writing Life: Writers Groups

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I belong to a writers group.  And it’s great!

It all began years ago, when I started the Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.  It was the first writing course I ever went on.  I walked into the room and found myself surrounded by people like me.  It was the first time I ever felt like I wasn’t different and strange.  I had found my tribe.

Writing is a solitary occupation, so it is crucial for both your mental health and your work to socialise.  And what better way to do that than with other writers who are going through the same trials and tribulations as you are?

As part of our diploma course, we went on a weekend retreat, involving taught sessions, visiting speakers, workshopping and private writing time.  It was a huge success and we bonded.  Many of us went on to study for the Advanced Diploma in Prose Fiction, which was primarily a workshop-based course, and that further cemented the group.

Since then we have continued to meet, once a month, to share our work, our experiences, problems and interests.  And an awful lot of tea and flap-jacks!  Members have come and gone, buts okay.  There is a core group who have stuck together for over a decade now, sharing life experiences, supporting one another through MA courses and publication.  We go on annual retreats together, about which more in future.  We meet at each other’s houses, planning dates ahead and each offering to the host nights most convenient.  Hot and cold drinks, nibbles and cakes are provided to lubricate the conversation.

Based on the old course model, each member brings a piece of new writing that they have done, and we try to keep it to around 1,000 to 2,000 words in length – any longer and it takes up too much time.  You can read your own piece, or ask someone else to read it.  (It is sometimes really helpful to hear another person read it in order to pick out the parts where the writing is less fluid.)  Then people comment.  Helpful and empathic criticism is offered.  We always make sure we start by pointing out what we like about the piece.  Often, if it is part of a larger work, people will ask questions about plot or backstory.  Because we know one another’s work so well, we can refer back to earlier stories, or earlier parts of the work, and kick around ideas to find out what might be a useful improvement for any problems.  At the end of every participant’s session, they are asked how they feel about what was said, which gives them the chance to say anything that has been missed in the discussion.  We usually manage to workshop about three pieces of prose in a 2.5 hour meeting.

Not everyone may have something they want to read, or will have had time to write that month, and that’s okay too.  They contribute by commenting on and supporting the work of others.  We have prose writers and poets.  We share news of any courses or day schools that may have been attended, and often discuss what books everyone is reading too.

And of course, we do a lot of nattering and gossiping too.

Outside the regular meetings, we have been known to circulate work and meet informally for writing sessions.  We even do writing sessions over the phone.

I encourage you to find your own tribe.  You can do it online or in person.  Libraries and publications such as Mslexia and the Writers Digest often have small ads for writers groups.  Or start one yourself, as we did.  Make sure you are happy with the atmosphere and ethos of the group you join, however.  There is no point in sharing your work and then having it brutally cut to pieces.  Gaining confidence in dealing with confidence is one thing.  Bullying is quite another.  There are pitfalls with joining any group, but the advantages with a good one will outweigh any glitches.

My pals in the group have stuck by me through thick and thin and seven novels, and I am eternally grateful to them for their kind support and criticism.  And for banning me from using the word ‘massive’.  Sometimes you need that kind of pal.

Dear Bridget, Clare, Heidi, Nina, and Sally, I love you.

And now I had better get myself together and go and put some flap-jacks in the oven, because they’ll be round tonight and I haven’t written anything yet!

Happy creating,

EF